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Nigeria News: Yar’adua assures on freedom of Information bill

For the Records

THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA IN FOSTERING DIALOGUE AND MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING BETWEEN GOVERNMENT AND THE PEOPLE

KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY THE SPECIAL ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT (MEDIA AND PUBLICITY), MR. OLUSEGUN ADENIYI AT THE CELEBRATION OF WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY IN LAGOS , MONDAY MAY 4, 2009

As we gather here to mark the World Press Freedom Day, I bring you the goodwill of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who not only recognises and respects the importance of the work of the media, but is also interested in empowering practitioners to discharge their constitutional responsibilities under section 22 of the 1999 Constitution.

 That explains why he has continually reiterated his commitment to the Freedom of Information Bill which he has pledged to assent into law once it is passed by the National Assembly.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, in the last few weeks, a couple of issues have gained prominence in the public domain. The most significant one is the Federal Government White Paper on the report of the Justice Muhammadu Uwais-led Electoral Reform Committee set up by President Yar’Adua to assist in actualising his desire to reform our electoral system. As the debate generated by the White Paper raged, the court-ordered Gubernatorial re-run elections in Ekiti State was conducted.

Unfortunately, the election slated for 63 wards in 10 local government areas became a difficult task for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) because of the activities of the principal actors in the yet-unfolding drama who are not ready to play by the rules. These two interwoven issues of national importance which have been given prominence in the media best exemplify the growing culture of discourse in our country, a culture that is increasing public scrutiny of the activities of government and its agencies.

As a demonstration of his faith in the need for a credible electoral system, a few months into office, he called a meeting of all the governors of the 36 states of the federation and appealed to them to ensure that as they prepared to organise local government elections in their states they allowed the will of the people to prevail by protecting the sanctity of the ballot. He followed this up in December 2007 by setting up a committee to review the electoral system and recommend ways of reforming it. The committee headed by respected Justice Uwais and comprised of prominent Nigerians, submitted its report and recommendations earlier this year.

After three meetings, spanning over 30 hours, of the Federal Executive Council, the government issued a White Paper which accepted more than 90 percent of the committee’s recommendations and disagreed with only three of them. In refusing the three recommendations, the government explained that one of them violated the doctrine of separation of powers among the executive, the legislature and the judiciary in a democracy; the other undermines the authority of the judiciary which should be insulated from partisan politics; while the last one could adumbrate the fundamental right of a petitioner who has been accused of criminal wrongdoing.

In most reviews of the government white paper, the impression being created is that the committee was set up to look into these three issues only. The justification for this view is that the three recommendations rejected by the Federal Executive Council and subsequently by the Council of State represent the fundamental factors that impede the exercise of a credible election. Yet we know that this argument merely reinforces the view of opposition politicians who themselves, as senior government officials in the recent past, showed no commitment to electoral reform.

The position of government is that the independence of INEC is not necessarily vitiated by the executive input to the nomination of the electoral body but by the integrity of the nominees as well as the funding of the body. This is why the government accepted other recommendations of the committee which aim at restoring the integrity of INEC officials by reducing the influence of the executive on the body.

Aside many other far-reaching provisions in the seven Bills sent by the President, the reform now seeks to strengthen the independence of INEC by granting it financial autonomy as its funding will be a first line charge on the Consolidated Revenue Fund. The exercise will also provide additional sanctions for persons convicted of electoral offences by declaring such convicts unfit to stand for election for ten years.

Yet the practical implication of media review of the white paper on electoral reform is the general impression created that the government is not committed to electoral reform without presenting any facts upon which to base this kind of premeditated conclusion beyond what some politicians say.